Kenya's Election: Can Technology Stop Hate Speech?

By Kate Roff

Kenya's past elections have been marred by violence, and with citizens heading to the polls on August 8, observers are concerned about the impact of hate speech. SMS text messages, in particular, have been blamed for partially fueling violence that led to 1,400 deaths following the 2007 election.

However, during this year's election, SMS messages are being used to try to diffuse tension, and social media is being used to monitor hate speech.

What is hate speech?

"The definition we use for hate speech is really the general definition, which is speech that attacks a person or group, on the basis of their race, their gender, their ethnic origin, their religion, or sexual orientation," said Giselle Lopez, from PeaceTech Lab, who has been researching the impact of hate speech and conflict in the region – including neighboring South Sudan.

"In the case of most of the work that we do there's another category of speech, called dangerous speech, which is speech that is very likely to lead to violence," Ms Lopez said.

Mercy Muendo lectures I.T. and the Law at Mount Kenya University and she told Peace News Network that hate speech in her homeland is often directed at particular tribes.

"Right now it's worse because we have Facebook – if you look at our Facebook sites, you see there are some groups, some people, who just carelessly utter things," Ms Muendo said.

But, technology is also being used to diffuse tensions in Kenya.

Theo Dolan, Director of PeaceMedia and PeaceTech Lab Africa, said they are keeping a close watch on four “at-risk” counties in Kenya as elections proceed - Nakuru, Nandi, Kisumu and Nairobi.

Response hubs have been set up to monitor hate speech in online media, as part of a project run by Mercy Corps,

"[PeaceTech Lab] are providing some of the response hubs with information so that they'll be better able to identify what the language is, in what context it could be - really a sign of potential violence," said Mr Dolan.

This monitoring and analysis is intended to assist communities, security officials, and other response hubs, to respond to virulent election-related hate speech on social media.

Another tool being used is SMS text message programs, which were used by NGO’s in the last election.

"Basically what it is, is using an SMS platform, to which people subscribe in at-risk areas for election violence,” said Mr Dolan.

“And then we work with local community leaders to train them as, basically, sensors. We have people on the ground, entrenched in their local communities, looking for cases of rumors, or mis-information, or brewing violence, and then they text into the central hub, with that information,” he said.

"In which case, then there can be a very targeted peace message that's sent out to a specific community to try to diffuse the tension, or debunk the rumor or mis-information."